COLUMBIA, S.C. —With a federal board alleging that Boeing's decision to build a South Carolina plant violates labor laws, a Republican-led congressional oversight committee announced Wednesday that it will hold a June 17 hearing in North Charleston, home to Boeing's new 787 passenger aircraft assembly line.
The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government panel has requested that Lafe Solomon, acting general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, testify at the hearing.
"This hearing will focus on how your actions against Boeing could impact the thousands of Boeing employees at a non-union worksite in South Carolina," committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., wrote Solomon on Tuesday. "You assert that you do not seek to close Boeing's operations in South Carolina, yet the relief requested would have that exact effect."
An administrative law judge in Seattle is set to consider the NLRB dispute Tuesday, with any subsequent decision subject to appeal to the board and a federal appeals court. Solomon cited that ongoing dispute as a reason to decline Issa's invitation. Issa said he would subpoena Solomon if necessary.
The board sued Boeing in April, claiming the manufacturer located its line in South Carolina to retaliate against Washington state union workers who went on strike in 2008. The NLRB wants that work returned to Washington state, even though the company has already built a new South Carolina plant — the largest single industrial investment in the state's history — and hired 1,000 workers there.
Most 787s are being assembled in Washington state by members of Machinists union. Boeing expects to deliver the first one to a customer later this year, and with more than 800 orders, it's expected to be a major seller for years.
Boeing has said stopping 787 work in South Carolina would be impermissibly punitive because it would effectively shut it down. The Chicago-based company has also taken issue with the labor board's claim that the company removed or transferred any work from its Puget Sound facility, saying that all the work in South Carolina will be new and that no union member has lost a job over the action.
The wide-ranging dispute has drawn attention to the anti-union reputation of South Carolina, a right-to-work state where individual employees can join unions voluntarily, but unions cannot force membership across entire worksites. Like many others, the state also bars government employees from collective bargaining. In 2009, just 5.4 percent of the state's workers were covered by unions, according to federal Census data.
"This isn't about harming South Carolina employees," said Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in labor issues. "What makes it, assuming the facts are proved, illegal for the company to decide to locate work in South Carolina rather than in Washington is the need to protect the Washington employees from retaliation and from the fear that they'll be retaliated against again in the future if they exercise their statutory rights"
Union issues also spill over into state government affairs. A week into office, new Republican Gov. Nikki Haley was sued by the Machinists union for saying the state would try to keep unions out of the Boeing facility. In a February show of disdain for unions, dozens of House members co-sponsored a now-stalled bill that would have exempted businesses from a proposed federal rule that they notify workers of their rights to unionize.